Life Is A Long Take


The Miklós Jancsó Collection (Kino Lorber K25830)

New 4K Restorations of The Round-Up, The Red and the White, The Confrontation, Winter Wind, Red Psalm, and Electra, My Love in a 4 disc boxed set 

The late director Miklós Jancsó was one of the world's supreme art-cinema titans, whose work deserves to be discussed in the same breath as that of Bergman, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, and other immortals.

But 8 years after his death Jancsó's work is still relatively little known to even the most ardent of cinephiles outside of his native Hungary.  Longtime film buff that I am, Jancsó's name only first came to my attention about a decade ago in conversation with my friend Hungarian arthouse director Béla Tarr, who has elsewhere hailed Jancsó as "the greatest Hungarian film director of all time." A few years later I recorded an album with the great Hungarian musicians Enikő Szabó and Dezső Toni in the musical project Pearly Clouds -- and Toni informed me that Enikő, a famous Hungarian traditional singer, had performed on the soundtrack of Jancsó's 2010  film So Much for Justice. Thus the work of Jancsó became a Subject for Further Investigation

Béla Tarr himself was a late revelation for me -- after hearing rave reviews of his opus Satantango from my friend Cineaste editor Richard Porton, I went to a screening at Lincoln Center (all 7 1/2 hours of it, with a meal break) and was totally sold on the bleak vision of Tarr and his scenarist, author László Krasznahorkai. Tarr is the master of the "Long Take" -- basically static one-camera shots without an edit, shots sometimes lasting as long as a full 10 minutes, the typical length of a complete reel of unexposed 35mm film apparently -- and in Krasznahorkai he found his absolutely perfect match in prose, as the chapters of Krasznahorkai's novels usually consist of one astonishingly long sentence maximum.

Satantango "long take":

I was so excited about the power generated by these two Hungarian artists working closely together that I made a point of visiting Tarr in Sarajevo where he was then running an international film academy (which sadly is no more) and spent a pleasant afternoon with him. He mentioned the work of Jancsó reverentially, specifically Jancsó's use of the "long take" as being influential on his own style. 

The "long take" in cinema actually has a venerable tradition, and has been approached historically in two ways. Both approaches begin with the basic premise that the length of the film in the camera's film magazine determines the length of the shot. Both approaches utilize at ground level a documentary attitude, film as a real time slice of life (one recalls Godard's dictum "Film is truth 24 frames per second") -- in other words, just press Play and Shoot (hopefully to kill) until the film runs out. The difference in the two approaches is whether or not the camera remains stationary or not during the take, and whether or not intricate choreographed moves involving the dramatis personae have been worked out in advance to propel the narrative forward without edits.

The reel granddaddy of the first type of "long take" comes from the dawn of cinema courtesy of film pioneers the Lumiere Brothers in their L’Arrivee d’un Train A la Ciotat (1895), which consists of 48 seconds of just that -- a film generated by a stationary camera left to register a train pulling in on the Ciotat platform until the film runs out of the camera. The spirit of this tradition was carried on more than half a century later in Andy Warhol’s 3-4 minutes screen tests -- shoot the supposedly fascinating subject till the 100 foot black and white silent film roll in the stationary Bolex runs out -- and also in early Warholiana like 1963's Kiss and 1964's Blowjob, lengthier silent films which cobble together multiple "long takes" of similar sequences and actions shot with a stationary camera, then edited together sequentially under a specific rubric. In these films you can see the editing seams showing, and one is aware when each camera roll runs out and another "long take" of the same or similar action (sometimes with different actors) ensues.

The second, much more sophisticated approach to the "long take", employs the same process of filming a scene until the camera roll runs out, but utilizes all sorts of camera tracking shots and choreographed actorly bits of business, all of it synchronized and timed out to the millisecond. This modus operandi has perhaps its most indelible expression in Orson Welles’s astonishing to this day 3 minute and 20 second opening of his film Touch of Evil (1958), with Venice California standing in for the fictional Mexican-American border town of Los Robles. But as "long takes" go, that’s only a mere handful of time (although an awful lot happens in those 3 minutes and 20 seconds). Ten years earlier Alfred Hitchcock endeavored to create a similar illusion: that his entire film Rope was shot in one continuous take, which he more or less pulled off through the use of judicious edits on neutral surfaces on the set to foster the illusion that the relentlessly roving camera was prowling the stage set and registering one particular point of view  throughout the film without once stopping for a breath / change of POV.  More recently Alejandro Inarittu's Birdman attempted to repeat that feat -- and more or less pulled it off through similar editing tricks combined with CGI effects. 

Touch of Evil "long take":

The "long take" too has its analogue in literature as well, pre-Krasznahorkai. William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom contains a famously run-on 1288 word sentence, once cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the w0rld’s longest. But in fact the "long take" sentence has been a modernist trope for years, examples of which are rife in the work of Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and imho was first pioneered and never better expressed than in James Joyce's Ulysses, where Molly Bloom's infamous soliloquy consist of 8 enormous sentences of approximately 22,000 words in its entirety, the last sentence running 4391 words. The long sentences there perfectly mirror Molly Bloom's interior dialogue with herself, a gushing stream of consciousness as she tosses and turns and ruminates on her life the long night of June 16th into the wee hours of the 17th , all the while with Leopold Bloom's feet in her face (and vice versa).

Molly Bloom's soliloquy from Ulysses, read by Siobhan McKenna:

Two take-aways  -- the "long take" in cinema, as well as in literature, is a two way song capable of both slowing down, freezing, and stopping time -- and also is capable of compressing the narrative and propelling it forward. When reading words on the page you can choose your own speed of reading and comprehending them,  and can linger lovingly on favorite passages, re-read them again and again, and ruminate on them at your leisure. In an actual cinema, depending on how elaborately worked out and choreographed the "long take", audiences get one chance and one shot only at deciphering the action on the screen, unless they want to purchase a ticket for a second screening. With the advent of digital streaming at home, on your phone, and on a plane, this one-shot chance at taking it all in and making sense of the "long take" becomes moot as one can stop the digital flow of sound and images, reverse to a prior section, slow down the action, fast forward, etc. -- just like perusing a book. A film student's dream!

Which brings us to this new box set from Lorber from the director hailed as the "Master of the Long Take" -- a feast for cinephiles and a chance to catch up on titles of his hitherto hard to catch films in a sumptuous 4k restoration. Jancsó's work never has looked better. There is a rousing essay included by Martin Scorsese that champions Jancsó as at the forefront of political cinema in the '60s and '70s, and the first offering included in the set, 1966's The Round-Up, is perhaps the best known of his films, dealing with the 19th century Hapsburg government's clampdown and interrogation of political revolutionaries. The film is stark, austere, gripping-and contains many intricate camera movements -- but no "long takes" on the level of the last film in the set ,which to me was a real eye-opener and the most enjoyable Jancsó film I've seen to date -- 1974's Elektra, My Love, which is worth the price of the entire set alone.

A re-framing of the 2000 year old Electra mythos done over 70 minutes in 12 spectacular full color "long takes", filmed on an almost empty and barren plain in what might be ancient Greece or ancient Hungary, the film resembles nothing so much as an epic, stylized historical pagan folk pageant involving ritual evocations to the gods through dance and the dithyrambic movements of mass battalions of peasants, herds of galloping horses sweeping in and out of frame in both the background and foreground driven by chanting men whipping the air, a Greek chorus of naked body-painted women, and a black-hatted folk guitar-strumming troubadour commenting on the action -- all glued together by the intimate feminist / revolutionary pronouncements of Electra herself, a sensual Earth Mother / warrior played by the charismatic and alluringly fierce Hungarian actor Mari Törőcsik, who resembles Jeanne Moreau in her prime. Here in the first take she sweeps majestically through the ritualized choreographic mise-en-scene swirling around her to confront the current despot, shaven-headed baddie King Aegisthus, and declare herself against oppression and on the side of the people, innocent victims all. She informs him that although he despises her she is basically unbreakable and immortal -- and a doppelgänger of her brother, the absent (at this point) Orestes. Both brother and sister are heaven-sent and hell-bent on avenging the assassination of their father King Agamemnon by King Aegisthus 15 years after the fact.

Electra "long take":

The plot twists are numerous -- especially the startling finale involving a deus ex machina (literally a red helicopter) swooping down from the heavens firebird-like to carry off Electra and Orestes. The film accentuates one of Jancsó's central tenets; namely, that the spirit of revolution cannot be extinguished, and also needs to be perpetually renewed, in order to liberate the oppressed masses and usher in a state of permanent world peace. On the one hand these sentiments are usually scoffed at here at the Western World as typically cliched, naïve and simplistic Marxist cant -- and working as a creative artist under the Russian-backed Hungarian regime in his hey-day, Jancsó was expected to underscore such themes.

The fact is though that there is an undercurrent in much of Jancsó's films here, an ongoing sly critique of Soviet dogma / authoritarianism that is carried on subtly in the background -- a nod and a wink to his devoted Hungarian proletariat audience who Jancsó recognized as being largely confused and victimized, and who he is obviously sympathetic to.

Thus in this symbolic parable of the triumphant revenge of Electra and Orestes in overthrowing the murderous tyrant King Aegisthus, the observant viewer may notice a few discordant surprisingly modernist elements introduced into the narrative that provide an ironic note that busts the film out of being a mere version of pastorale.

For instance, after the bulk of the film has been faithfully rendered as an ancient ritualistic pageant, where the main threatened weapon of execution throughout has been a ceremonial dagger, near the very end of the film a raging Electra pulls a shiny 20th century pistol out of her robes to take out King Aegisthus point blank -- Blam! Blam! Blam!.

Now who exactly in the film's audience would be resonating with the idea of wielding a pistol in order to remove their authoritarian overlords in 1974 Hungary -- other than "your huddled masses yearning to be free"?

The fact that Jancsó could create such an arresting and multi-layered fairy-tale-like visual feast out of the ancient Greek tragedy of Electra -- one that struck a profound chord with Hungarian audiences in 1974 and which still commands our attention today -- is an astonishing testimony to his power as a visionary director.

To sum up: this box set is a treasure trove of living cinema -- visually stunning films which explore the intersection of power and political oppression -- and will be embraced by the adventurous and committed film goer.

Add new comment